Friday, November 22, 2013

Where Were You When ...

On this day, the 50th anniversary of the death of President John Kennedy, the Internet is full of stories about "where were you when Kennedy was shot."

Well,  not to be outdone here's my story.

I was in the 7th grade.  We had just come back from lunch and were settling into our seats when the teacher, Mrs. Alford, came in and we all got quiet.  We always got quiet when Mrs. Alford came in because she was a tall, imposing teacher with a stern look (yes, she looked aft) and you just didn't want to cross her.

That day, however, she was looking a little down.  She slinked into the room, shoulders hunched, eyes downcast and we all knew we were in big trouble.  We didn't know what we had done, but we had done something and the boom was about to be lowered.

But, the boom never came.  We were off the hook.

Mrs. Alford straightened herself at her desk and addressed the class.  She talked to us about the units in government we had been studying, about the House and the Senate and the relationship between the President and Vice President, sort of a review.

Then she caught herself as if stifling a sneeze and many years later I realized it was the emotion of the moment that seized her.  She looked up and said, "The President has been shot.  In Dallas.  That's all I know."

Someone in the class shouted, "Hooray!"  The "someone" was the local thug who was pretty much a moron on a good day but his was the only voice and he quickly shut up.  You see, Kennedy wasn't universally loved, especially in the South where I lived.  There were a lot of people who didn't shed a tear at the assassination of the President.  Some openly laughed.  However, at that moment we in Mrs. Alford's 7th grade class were silent.  However we felt personally we didn't want that boom to be lowered on us.

Alford went on for a few more minutes about the issues of succession following the death of a president and it was clear that she hoped this wouldn't happen.

Suddenly the school librarian appeared at the doorway.  She was clutching a handkerchief and was red-eyed.  She looked directly at Mrs. Alford, who stood up and looked at her expectantly, and said, "He's dead.  The President is dead."  Our room was at the end of the hall.  The librarian turned to move to the next classroom before she realized she was at the end of the hall and did a little double-take not knowing which way to go.  Pausing slightly she looked left and right then walked away the way she came.

Funny how one remembers details like that.  I remember the librarian wearing a flower print dress, red flowers on a light background.  She wore glasses.  But I couldn't tell you the weather that day or what I wore or what I had for lunch.

Following the news Mrs. Alford slumped into her chair and looked at nothing for what seemed a long time.  Eventually she looked up, surveyed the class, and asked, "Who can tell me the name of the Vice President?"  We all knew the answer to that question because it had been on a quiz a few days before.  We knew the names of the Cabinet Secretaries, too, and the Speaker of the House and all sorts of other people.  Normally half a dozen hands would have shot up to answer a question posed by the formidable Mrs. Alford.  We were all eager to please.  Not today, though.  Not at this time and in this place.  We sat there in stunned silence.  Nobody said a word.

The usually animated Mrs. Alford didn't seem to care.  No cajoling, no encouraging, no berating.  She had lost the wind in her sails and was totally spent.  Before she could catch her breath, though, the loudspeaker in the room blared to life and the Principal announced that school would be dismissed early today.  Immediately, in fact.  Please be careful going home and students who needed to call their parents could do so using the telephone in the school office.

I picked up a couple of books, left the classroom and rode my bicycle home like I did every day.

The streets were empty.

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